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Sean Thorpe Reviews "Great Horror Camp Out 2014: Sacramento"
What if you could combine the joys and camaraderie of camping with the adrenaline and thrills of a horror movie? That's the question posed by the Great Horror Campout, creating a unique experience--however flawed that may be.
On paper, the concept of the Great Horror Campout is pretty incredible. Take the simplicity of camping, add classic horror elements, and create an immersive, interactive experience that other forms of entertainment can't even dream of. 3D TV pales in comparison. On paper.
In action, the Great Horror Campout struggles to find its identity, with equal counts of hits and misses. While identifying a niche that can truly entertain the masses in a new way, it manages to find ways to simultaneously delight and disappoint both campers and horror fans alike.
When I had first heard of the Great Horror Campout here in Sacramento--on a piece of farmland in West Sac--I was surprised that there was a suitable environment so close to home. The drive was short, the weather pleasant. Basically, it was the before picture of any decent horror movie.
Check-in was pretty smooth considering the number of people, and that everyone was to check-in at the same time. A staggered check-in may have been easier. Add the standard search through everyone's bags for weapons, booze, and unmentionables, and it was reminiscent of a trip through airport security, although a tad more efficient.
The first gripe came from the fact that there was a fairly lengthy walk from the parking lot where the check-in happened to the actual campground. The campout team provides the tents, which are assigned at the time of ticket purchase, but you're still on the hook for bringing and carrying sleeping bags, flashlights, snacks, and the rest. A shuttle or two would have helped immensely.
Some of the tents were marked, the majority were not. So it was a little tedious finding the tent from time to time. Keep in mind that there are only two ticket prices available--$99 if you want to be one of four people in a tent, or $139 if you want to be one of two people in a tent. As such, your experience will be greatly impacted by the number of people you go with, how friendly you are, and how willing you are to "sleep" in a tent overnight with random people. You will notice that the word "sleep" is in quotes. More on that later.
The campout bills itself as being a "Choose Your Own Adventure overnight interactive experience." In addition to the two- or four-person tent options, there is what they refer to as the "yellow/safe zone" tent option, which is only available for four people. The yellow zone is the only one where the monsters do not interfere with you while you are in your tent. The people in the yellow zone get sleep, not "sleep." Again, more on that later.
Once settled in, there was a noticeable excitement in the air. The sun was going down, the large outdoor movie screen stood out in sharp relief, and people started chatting with those around them. In essence, this was the campout tapping into its camping roots. This was echoed later in the evening, when the stars were clearly visible and when everyone was shivering around the campfire, roasting marshmallows.
Around 9:00 PM, the orientation started, led by a charismatic emcee known as the Headmaster. After the standard rules--have fun, don't be dumb, and don't touch the actors--the Hell Hunt (scavenger hunt) began. For those uninterested in the scavenger hunt, movies were allegedly playing on the big screen, arts and crafts tables were allegedly present, and God knows what else was promised. I don't know because I was focused primarily on the scavenger hunt. The scavenger hunt is the shining star of the event, and I don't know a single person who wasn't focused on that exclusively--including people that intended to opt out of it upon arrival.
The scavenger hunt is based on clues that are emailed to you at 8:00 PM the day before the campout, in the "dossier." It includes a map, with descriptions of who and what you can expect to see at each particular zone or area. With illustrious names such as Base Camp, Hell Zone, Big Creature Country, and The Ritual, each area centers around a particular theme. From clearings cut into the existing cornfield to dark labyrinths with surprises around every corner, each area is unique enough to create a distinct memory and experience.
In addition to the map, the dossier also includes hints and riddles on how to interact with the creatures and areas, to find the pieces you need for the scavenger hunt. There is a serious gross out factor to the scavenger hunt items, as well as the things you need to do to obtain them. This is the primary example of the horror elements of the campout shining through, and a compelling reason to check it out.
Unfortunately, not all the clues are as clear as they should be. This breeds an air of tediousness that is repeated when you're left with a bunch of items to find that are too difficult to locate, or have clues too convoluted to figure out. Imagine having a shopping list, comprised solely of foods you don't like.
On top of that, with no additional resources or information available, most people were forced to find other ways to locate scavenger hunt items. I witnessed people trading items, and personally asked multiple people where they had found specific items. I felt like I was cheating myself out of a better experience, but that the system that creates that experience was flawed as well. A lose-lose situation, and one of the most unfortunate aspects of the entire campout.
The lofty goal of the scavenger hunt is to obtain enough items of each rarity level to qualify for the title of Hellmaster. By about 1:00 AM--the Hell Hunt running from around 9:30 PM - 2:30 AM--it became clear to me that I wasn't going to qualify, and I was totally okay with that. Some pieces required returning to a single challenge multiple times, with a wait of up to five to ten minutes between each round. Of course, this was for the most tedious, boring challenges available, which effectively highlighted how dull they were to begin with. The immersive experience promised had devolved into standing in line for a roller coaster you didn't want to ride.
In addition to the scavenger hunt, there were random "Speed Bump Challenges," the completion of which was required to qualify for Hellmaster. As they were grouped by the color coded scheme given the tents, in some instances there would be one winner out of forty people, with no chance to play the game a second time. Hell hath no fury like a Speed Bump Challenge unwon. Additionally, it was heartbreaking to watch people leave a challenge they were attempting for a third time for an elusive scavenger hunt item, to run off to a Speed Bump Challenge they weren't likely to win.
Once the 2:30 AM bell tolled, you turned in your scavenger hunt items, in exchange for a T-shirt. Those who thought they were eligible for the Hellmaster title had to have each item catalogued for verification, creating one long line for those guys, and a short line for the unskilled scavenger hunters such as myself. I had never been so proud of my failings in my life.
Around 3:00 AM, sleep was attempted. It was delayed, thanks to some very tenacious monsters. I'd elaborate, but I don't want to ruin the surprise. Once sleep was attained, it was unexpectedly, abruptly terminated. Again, I don't want to ruin the surprise. What I will tell you is that for the first time for the entire campout, I felt like they had gone over the line. From what I had overheard from other people the next morning, everyone else was fine with it. So maybe I'm just a sensitive flower. Who knows.
There was a wakeup call over the loudspeaker around 6:45 AM, and another one at 7:00 AM. Closing ceremonies were to be held at 7:15 AM, with everyone to get the fudge out by 8:00 AM. A restful night of sleep is not the norm for the Great Horror Campout. I'm sure anyone in the yellow zone slept like a baby, though. Yes, I'm still a little jealous about it.
I can't tell you what closing ceremonies looked like, as it was primarily a battle for the 19 people who qualified for the Hellmaster title to duke it out, and my interest in seeing that to the end was effectively zero. Since the only food available was whatever snacks you brought in--or the candy they had for sale if you brought no snacks--my hunger exceeded my curiosity.
In the end, the Great Horror Campout was a pretty good experience, that lacked a distinct identity. I suggest people try it once. I went on the first of two consecutive days, and found it absurd that people were considering staying for a second night. It's like one of those movies with a surprise ending--it doesn't survive repeated viewings very well. At the price point, I expected more. For the experience I received, I expected a lower price point.
Most of the foibles are easily fixed--shuttles, logistical changes to the setup, fine tuning the difficulty of the scavenger hunt, for example--and it really is a great concept. If the Great Horror Campout can find its home between camping and horror movies, it will likely become a lasting tradition for quite some time. If not, its memory will likely fade like that of a cheesy slasher flick, set in a forest for no reason other than it's easier than thinking of a new place to shoot a horror movie.
Horror Films and the Mind – Are You Addicted to Fear?
The horror genre is one of the most successful crossers of cultural barriers in the film industry - witness the enthusiasm in the West for Far Eastern horrors. Academics believe there’s a reason why that is. Horror speaks more directly to us than any other form of film. It’s primal, and its international success helps to establish the idea that there is such a thing as a universal “human nature”. If we judged by comedy we might conclude that we’re 23 different species with next to nothing in common.
Why would you want to be Scared?
Surely fear is a bad thing though? Why would anyone voluntarily subject themselves to it; it even causes unpleasant physical symptoms: a racing heart, a jumping stomach; at the extreme end of the scale, people can faint into unconsciousness from fear. Our society is drowning in anxiety, for which our physicians are writing millions of prescriptions.
It’s nothing new though. The Anglo Saxons who sat by the fireside to hear Beowulf recite lived lives that were full of a genuine fear of instant death and yet in their spare time choose to kick back with more of the same. The Greeks felt the same way if Homer’s Odyssey is anything to go by. These are the stories from those cultures that have survived to become classics and which still speak to us today.
What the Academics Say
There has been a fair amount of serious study of the horror genre. Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reckon that horror is a vital part of human evolution. Fear might be unpleasant, but it’s also useful. If you’re not sufficiently scared of the sabre tooth tiger, the sabre tooth tiger is going to eat you. That knowledge seems to have made it into our hard wiring. Even 21st century children can spot a snake faster than either flowers or more realistically modern threats like guns on computer screens. That’s why giant monsters who want to turn our heroes into the next snack remain a staple of horror fiction in any mediums. How then do vampires, were wolves, zombies and other made-up monsters fit into this pattern? The simplest answer is they’re useful warnings clothed in exaggeration – it’s good to be scared of wolves. It can be good to be scared of humans too, and vampires, zombies and ghosts warn to be afraid of possible human enemies who are very much like us but with one exceptional difference – they suck blood, transform you into one of them or come from beyond the grave.
Addicted to Fear
That’s just a brief summary of why horror might have a universal human appeal, but what of those people who really love horror? These scares have their use, such as providing a safe way of trying out dangerous realities, like play fighting in animal cubs. However, to get really into horror you’re likely to be a particular sort of person. Those who love horror tend to be affected by it more strongly. Being more scared produces a correspondingly strong rush of relief when all is resolved or the film ends and reveals that nothing really happens. Traditionally, horror has appealed to men more than women; many classic horrors reduce women to the role of – often semi-clad – victim. In studies, empathy is often reported to be lower in horror fans than non-fans. Sensation seekers are also more prone to like horror films. There are even some theories that this enthusiasm for scary movies can tip over into addiction, which may even need treatment in the same way that addictions to alcohol or some drugs are treated. This is linked to the Type-T personality, the thrill seeker. Type-T personalities have been found to be more likely to become alcoholics and they are also more likely to love horror films.
Better Fear through Science
Could this psychological probing help horror-mongers scare us more effectively? It’s possible, and critics believe that the best horror writers are instinctive psychologists. Freud had a lot to say about horror – as he did about almost everything – and why it is so effective. Freudians often see vampires as avatars of repressed sexuality, werewolves as representing our struggle to repress our inner beast. Some horror metaphors though are explicitly acknowledged by their creators. George Romero says that his zombies stand for thoughtless consumerism. True Blood seems quite obviously to use vampire/human tension as a proxy for our own society’s very real struggle with racial integration.
This is a deep and surprisingly well-researched area of human culture. Whether you just love horror or would like to inflict it on others, it’s worth looking more deeply into why we love to be scared.
Claire Fagan, Author